A liberal Super PAC, Forward Majority, is digging up dirt on hundreds of incumbent Republicans running in local races across the country, deploying opposition research to try to improve Democrats' dismal numbers in state legislatures in 2018.
Co-founded by David Cohen, a top Obama 2008 official, Forward Majority entered the political field last year during the Virginia elections, running ad campaigns in 16 state legislative races (Democratic candidates won 12 of those).
"What we found in Virginia is that these state legislators, many who have been in office for years, are some of the most unvetted people in American politics," Cohen told Vox. "In that sense, oppo has an important role to play in helping voters understand who represents them."
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Forward Majority is taking its strategy to other key states in the 2018 midterms, focusing on districts where Hillary Clinton performed well and incumbent Republicans are running. They want to help Democrats pick up as many seats as they can in states that will be crucial to redrawing congressional voting maps in 2021, including Florida, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, Ohio, and Kentucky. That's because state legislatures play an outsize role in redrawing district maps for the US House.
"The imperative of flipping these state legislative chambers ahead of the next redistricting round is so crucial for the future of the Democratic Party," said Ben Wexler-Waite, communications director for the PAC.
The national Democratic Party is bad at state politics
Many liberals argue that the national Democratic Party has made a big mistake in overlooking state legislative races for years.
Cohen, a veteran of presidential politics who got his start in state races, recognizes firsthand the issue of drawing operatives away from local politics to bigger, flashier campaigns.
"What you want to do is you want to graduate to the federal races and work for a presidential [campaign] because that's the holy grail," he said. "But the reality is what that creates is a dearth of experience at the state legislative level."
While Democrats focused most of their energy on national races, Republicans have dominated in states. Looking at maps of governors mansions and state legislatures across the country is like staring at a sea of red; Republicans control more than two-thirds of state legislatures in America, as well as 33 governors mansions. They have total control of both the legislature and the governor's seat in 25 states.
"For too long, the national team has just focused on Washington, DC," Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, told Vox earlier this year. "The Democratic team has finally realized we have to build infrastructure in state and local communities."
Other progressive groups such as Bernie Sanders's Our Revolution, Run for Something, the Working Families Party, and Sister District were also active in Virginia state races, endorsing or assisting local candidates.
In Virginia, many outside progressive groups either complemented or filled in for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the arm of the Democratic Party that focuses on state legislative races. Wexler-Waite and Cohen say Forward Majority is communicating with the DLCC and many of these other groups in 2018 to make sure they're not duplicating efforts.
State politics matter — and have national implications
State politics may not be glamorous in comparison to national campaigns, but they're hugely important.
First, state policies affect lives directly.
Conservatives have been hugely effective in enacting state and local policies on issues ranging from women's health to gun laws, plus many attempts to pass right-to-work lawstargeting unions and bathroom bills barring transgender individuals from using the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity.
For instance, on abortion access, 31 states now require waiting periods, restrict insurance coverage for abortion, ban abortion after 20 weeks, require clinics to meet ambulatory surgical center standards (causing many to close), and require abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at hospitals.
Second, many state legislatures draw US congressional maps every 10 years, and Republican legislatures are the root cause of gerrymandered districts in some states.
The US Supreme Court recently ruled North Carolina's congressional maps unconstitutional and is currently considering maps in Wisconsin, Texas, and Maryland (a Democratic gerrymander). The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently ruled that the state's maps were a Republican gerrymander and ordered new ones to be drawn.
But Democrats recognize this fight extends beyond the courts, and many say they need to elect state lawmakers to have a fair shot before the next redistricting after the 2020 census.
"We're worried about a level playing field for our elections," Cohen "Guess what? Gerrymandering, voter suppression ... these are all state concerns."
Conservative groups are still playing hard at the state level
Groups like Americans for Prosperity, backed by the billionaire Koch brothers, have focused on state lobbying for years, getting active in state races and policy alike.
Koch-backed groups plan to spend $300 million to $400 million on policy and campaigns in 2018, spread across groups including AFP, Freedom Partners Action Fund, Concerned Veterans for America, the Libre Initiative, and Generation Opportunity, according to the Washington Post.
In some states, AFP is an integral part of the political landscape. For instance, in New Hampshire, (which has a huge state legislature), the state AFP branch "has grown into a de facto third party in state politics," according to a report from New Hampshire Public Radio's Casey McDermott. They don't just go after Democrats; AFP also uses its influence to target moderate Republicans who don't support their policy priorities.
There's also the fact that (just like in Congress), many of these conservative state politicians are old, white, and male — even in places where their constituencies are rapidly diversifying.
"They seem to have slipped more and more to the right, even as their districts have diversified," Cohen said, adding that it "boggle[s] the mind how out of step with reality that these guys are. That's largely because we haven't challenged them in a decade."
How to pitch donors on why state races matter — and an influx of money into state races
There's not just the challenge of getting seasoned operatives to focus on state policy; Forward Majority also needs to pitch donors on state and local issues in order to get money (it hopes to fundraise $100 million over the next few years in its campaign effort).
But one argument Cohen and others have been making to donors is that they get more bang for their buck in state legislative races, where the average statehouse district is 67,000 constituents, versus about 710,000 in the average US congressional district.
"Your dollar is obviously vastly more impactful in a race where your overall budget is significantly smaller," Cohen said. "You're making a much bigger difference."
Television ads and political mailers can also have much more of a ripple effect in smaller districts, as Forward Majority found in Virginia's state races.
As much as the group is hoping opposition research can boost state Democrats' chances, there's also an ideological conflict: Many Democrats are running on the message of overturning the US Supreme Court's Citizens United decision and getting unlimited money out of politics, while Super PACs like Forward Majority are courting donors and funneling money into even the most local races.
But Cohen and Wexler-Waite say that for now, they need to play by the same rules as Republicans if there's any hope of making campaign finance reform a reality.
"If anyone wants to see campaign finance reform, the first thing we need to do is elect Democratic state legislators," Cohen said. "We've been fighting with both hands tied behind our back for years. We're going to bring the fight to them."